Why is it important to sing hymns in worship?
Scripture exhorts us to sing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Eph. 5:19-20; Col. 3:15-17). The Westminster Directory of Public Worship concurs with Scripture and says, “It is the duty of Christians to praise God publickly, by singing of psalms together in the congregation.”
“Why do Christians sing when they are together?” Dietrich Bonhoeffer answers: “The reason is, quite simply, because in singing together it is possible for them to speak and pray the same Word at the same time; in other words, because here they can unite in the Word” (Life Together, 59). I think that’s an important point.
Notice that right before Paul says to sing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs,” he says, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you [pl.] richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom” (Col. 3:16). So, singing ought to be part of the ministry of the word. We ought to sing the Bible. We ought to sing Psalms and we ought to also sing biblically rich songs. So, that’s in part why the Directory says our “chief care must be to sing with understanding.”
When we sing songs to God, however, we are not just thinking. We are not just singing for the sake of singing or just edifying each other. We are recounting God’s truth and goodness and being moved anew to thanksgiving (cf. Ps. 78).
We sing because we are thankful (Eph. 5:19b-20) even in the midst of suffering (see Acts 16:25). So, we make a joyful noise to the LORD, even when we don’t feel like it (Ps. 66:1; 81:1; 95:1, 2; 98:4, 6; 100:1).
We do not merely work ourselves up into a frenzy but are moved into orderly worship by the Spirit as we have the eyes of our hearts enlightened (cf. Eph. 1:15-23). Again, we sing with our spirit, but we sing with our mind also (1 Cor. 14:15). We “Praise Him for His mighty deeds; praise Him according to His excellent greatness!” (Ps. 150:2).
And as we praise God, we need each other and we need music to shake us awake to unseen realities. That’s why we’re told—commanded even when we don’t feel like it—to make a joyful noise to the LORD (Ps. 66:1; 81:1; 95:1, 2; 98:4, 6; 100:1), even at times using clashing cymbals (Ps. 150:5).
We’re told to sing because when we sing with our voice our whole body, and I would argue, our whole self (i.e. our heart) reverberates with the truth of what we sing. When we sing lyrics, they get into us and shape us. We are essentially preaching to ourselves, teaching ourselves, telling our self what we should desire, we are holding up a vision of prospering and “the good.” We are telling our self the truth in a very powerful way.
Truly, we must use a collaboration of means to remind ourselves that it is the LORD God, the Maker of heaven and earth, alone that can meet our every need. We must use good songs, good stories, the Bible, Christian community, logic, etc. to stir up our desires for the LORD and all the good He is and has for us. We must take care least there be an unworthy thought in our heart (Deut. 15:9). We must pursue things that bring light and life and reject what is rank in ruin and worthlessness (see e.g. Ps. 101; Phil. 4:8-9).
Someone asked me, “In light of the command to sing with understanding, which you reference in your post, how can we encourage congregations to do just that?”
That’s a good question. Thanks.
A few answers come immediately to mind. First, I think incorporating Scripture with singing is important. For instance, a call to worship can help the congregation understand that the Bible tells us to worship in song and even gives us other specific reasons why we should worship the LORD in song.
Second, singing songs that the congregation understand and explaining what they don’t understand is important. For example, we sing “here I raise my ebenezer” and “there is a fountain filled with blood.” Both those songs need to be explained so that people can worship with understanding.
Third, we can equip the congregation theologically and scripturally so that they can better grasp the rich theological songs that are sung.